By John Tapley
When scuba explorers and marine enthusiasts think Florida, imagery of manatees often comes to the forefront. Naturally peaceful and inquisitive creatures, manatees have captivated the hearts of countless people the world over; and despite their polarizing facial features, have inhabited the imaginations of lovelorn seafarers throughout the centuries. Listed as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act, their future hangs in jeopardy; and thanks to media, people can connect with these animals from across the globe.
For nearly 30 years, retired Navy vet, underwater photographer, and manatee devotee David Schrichte has captured these sea giants in serene stillness and in motion: inspiring others to reflect on their fragility and the roles they play in their environment.
From a young age, David was enthralled by the thrilling adventures of Jacques Cousteau and his Sunday evening Undersea Worldprogram, which inspired him to take up scuba diving lessons in his home state of Ohio. He continued being an avid adherent to the show, and shortly after earning his basic certification, watched an episode that would forever cement his fascination with the potato-shaped marine mammals.
In “The Forgotten Mermaids”, Cousteau and his crew profiled peaceful Sirenia herds off East Florida, and saved a manatee dubbed “Sewer Sam” from a storm drain in Miami. Seeing the gentle giant in a life-or-death situation, and the resilience of its benevolent rescuers, something sparked deep within David’s imagination. Like his heroes, he too would share Florida’s manatees with the greater world.
“It portrayed a gentle animal: very vulnerable interacting with the ever-growing influence on mankind’s intrusion into the environment,” he explains. “Maybe I could help focus attention on it through my photography.”
Years later, in 1992, David met up with a friend in Orlando, a fellow photographer and Navy buddy who introduced him to Crystal River: one of the most plentiful hotspots for meandering manatees.
“We went over to King’s Bay, slipped into the water, and snorkeled around with them,” David says. “That one event solidified it right there. I would focus my attention on these animals. I’m forever grateful for my friend for inviting me over. Seventeen years later, my dream was fulfilled: I could finally interact with these gentle animals in their natural environment!”
Since this auspicious encounter, David has taken tens of thousands of manatee photos; his portfolio covers a wide range of tableaus from seacow shindigs to the mighty mammals munching away on topside vegetation. In addition to contributing to publications such as Spirit of Hawaii Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, and Earthwatch, he has shared his captivating imagery – his strive for education – with non-profit organizations such as Sea 2 Shore Alliance and Save the Manatee Club; his works featured in educational and fundraising materials, such as the club’s annual manatee calendar.
His drive for education has also directly impacted others on an individual level. Over the years, David has developed acclaim throughout Florida’s manatee allies, and gladly shares his work with educators and students around the country to further extend his mission. And as Florida’s inland waters have drastically changed over time – and in turn the vitality of the slow Sirenia – his mission has become increasingly important.
“I want anybody who looks at the imagery (whether it be imagery or still), to take away [a message to] conserve,” he says. “There’s still a lot of loose ends with the threatened category: the peril of their environment doesn’t look like it’s going to let up. This is a gentle animal that deserves focus to conserve its habitat for [future] generations.”
For nearly three decades, David has witnessed firsthand environmental degradation in areas known for drawing manatees: diminished water quality due to pollution has significantly inhibited visibility; population booms have increased toxic runoff; and manatee tourism has exploded over the last five years. These factors have made getting the perfect shot a fine balancing act: finding a place with herds of manatees but few people is a challenge, and arriving at the right spots at just the right time can be equally daunting – often, he is the first to arrive at a manatee meeting, and the last to leave.
David has taken these difficulties in stride; channeling his unwavering dedication to capturing the saintliness and fragility of the peaceful Sirenia, he applies a gentle touch to his technique, becoming one with his favorite subjects while respecting their habitat.
“When you’re in the water, you just relax. I almost get into a zen-like state where I float and hang motionlessly for a half hour or more: almost becoming as one in their environment,” he explains. “I’m the alien here – I’m in their realm – and the calmer I am… they sense that like any animal and gravitate towards it.”
With this technique, David has become part of the harmonious herd who welcome him for a photoshoot. Gently, he readies his equipment and begins his precise work, capturing them on camera from a variety of angles and in all sorts of situations. The fellowship within these tranquil waters becomes a character in its own right, spotlighting friendliness and curiosity.
“When I’m out there in the water and very few people are around, there’s a one-one-one interaction, which really tugs on my heartstrings,” he continues. “The manatees loosen up a bit and frolic with each other.”
Through David Schrichte’s lifelong dedication to manatees and the longevity of their environment, he has shared a world few have seen, and in doing so, has heightened their status, not only as Floridian icons, or even lovable, albeit lumbering creatures. And like his heroes who inspired him decades ago, he has underlined them as beings who share a fragile world with those who have power to influence it – for better or worse.
Reflecting on his past successes, David recalls one moment out of many, which he regards as a top favorite: a scene, which encapsulates the entirety of his quest:
“I saw a mother nursing two calves at one time, which I had heard of, but never seen before. We theorized a mother came up with a calf of her own – and they’ve been known to nurse orphans. This mother manatee had one of her own under one flipper right side up; the other had turned belly up, nursing upside down on the other side.
“It’s those kinds of intimate interactions where you see them frolic and playing around; and when everything is working right.”
For an overview of David’s works and accomplishments, including select imagery from his most cherished collections, visit www.manateepics.com.